The general consensus amongst intelligent cinema buffs appears to be Adam Sandler is a talentless moron. If you watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s quirky 2002 cult hit Punch-Drunk Love, you’ll see he’s capable of brilliance. He’s really good in this, alongside the fantastic Emily Watson, in a cult movie which deserves much wider recognition.
There’s lots to love here. Anderson is one of our favourite directors who makes consistently innovative films, with Punch-Drunk Love providing a unique love story between the socially awkward Barry Egan (Sandler) and the mysterious Lena Leonard (Watson) – the latter becomes infatuated with the former, whose bizarre nature triggers off a peculiar series of events. It’s just super!
Okay, plot! The protagonist is Barry Egan. He runs a toilet plunger and novelty item small business. He’s an introverted and eccentric sort (during the film, he insists on wearing a peculiar blue suit), arguably due to having some seven sisters who are all remarkably extroverted and prone to ordering him around. His lonely existence, which appears to involve barely any cultural intake, is prone to outbursts of rage.
In a fit of loneliness, he calls a sex chat line. This puts him into the path of conman Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a pre-fame role), who decides to extort Egan where possible. At the same time, his sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub of 24 fame) introduces him to Lena, who is infatuated with Barry. Out of the blue, he’s forced to cope with two battling forces and appears to be falling in love. Awwww.
Okay, so that’s the synopsis, but it misses out on a heck of a lot of quirk, such as how Egan is buying a metric tonne of puddings as the offer they provide has frequent flier miles (this was based off a true story, too!). Sandler masters Egan from the word go and is compelling as the introverted oddball, who struggles enormously with his emotions but appears to blossom as the film progresses.
Watson’s earnest performance is also worth full marks and she’s swoon worthy as Lena – forthright yet vulnerable. She keeps her English accent in the film and, as the audience, we don’t find out much about her, she’s just a mysterious entity. Alongside her, Hoffman (sadly missed, still) is terrific as the sleazeball mattress salesman who extorts people on the side.
Anderson’s use of music is also inspired, with peculiar noises and percussion capturing the mayhem going on inside Egan’s mind (as you hear in the clip above). It’s thoughtful little touches like this that make Anderson such an intriguing creative force. It worked wonders in Punch-Drunk Love and we urge you to put aside any Sandler concerns to simply enjoy this quirky oddity.
Adam Sandler has become synonymous with bad films. We’re sure he’s a nice enough bloke, but he has exhibited remarkable laziness with his projects which, inexplicably, keep being colossal commercial successes despite their terrible reputation. Jack and Jill, Grown Ups 1 & 2, Pixels, his Netflix films… the list of abominations is endless.
What’s doubly disappointing is, as displayed in Punch-Drunk Love, he has the talent to be starring in fantastic films, but instead plumps for lazy comedies which require little effort but will, again inexplicably, earn hundreds of millions of dollars. Clearly he has a massive fanbase, but we don’t know anyone who goes to see, or likes, any of his work. Who are these people!?
Of his 2002 performance in Anderson’s film, renowned American film critic Roger Ebert had this to say:
"Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession, and power. He can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?"
Well… yes, he can. And he is. And we all have to try and stomach it. For shame, Sandler!